On the 9th August 1956 South African women marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria in order to protest against the Pass Laws (legislation that required Black African people to carry an identity book which gave them permission to live and work in ‘white’ areas). 20 000 women, from all over South Africa and of all ages and stages of their lives, joined together in a common belief that these apartheid laws were intolerable. What that famous march is remembered for in particular (apart from the bravery of the women who participated and the impact that they had on the then Prime Minister Strijom’s government policies) was the saying that ‘when you strike a woman, you strike a rock’. I have always thought that the image this conjurers up is so poignant because rocks are so strong, so of the earth, so reliable, not moving and precisely because they do not move, so challenging.  This is exactly the image I have of the women who stood up to the National Party government in 1956 –  a difficult time in South Africa’s history. This is the event that South Africa commemorates on the 9th August each year, when we celebrate National Woman’s Day. 

When I started thinking about National Woman’s Day and why we celebrate it, I started thinking about who the key players were in putting together such an occasion. The likes of Helen Joseph and Lillian Ngoyi who belonged to the Government or General Issue Generation- the one that preceded the Silent Generation. The GI Generation are so called because they were the generation brought up in uniform due to living through two major world wars. They were born around the turn of the last century and some of them lived as long as into the 1990’s. Interestingly Generation Y emulate this generation. This may sound odd, but in fact a lot of the value system characteristics go in four-generational cycles.

Most immediately, the GI’s were the last team-orientated, optimistic, civic-minded and high-achieving generation. Generation theorist,Tom Browkov, calls the GI’s the ‘greatest generation’ and that is how I feel about Generation Y. Amongst the reasons for why these two generations have similarities is that they both grew up in households which were very child-focused. We have seen the huge rise in what is known as ‘helicopter parents’ providing for the every need of their children, struggling to let go, encouraged by the media around them to focus on their children from before birth until well after they turn 18. What this has resulted in is a confident generation of young people who, together, intend to make a difference- much like the intentions of the women who marched to the Union Buildings nearly 50 years ago.

Of course the difference with Generation Y is that they now live in a ‘free’ South Africa, so there are no Pass Laws to protest against. They live in the most diverse world known in social history which has made them a relatively tolerant generation. They have access to technology and therefore can express the opinions they definitively have immediately and transparently, which makes them powerful.

I wonder how they are going to use their power; and in what areas of life they will focus it? What I do know is that they will make a difference.  They are determined to improve the world and I do believe they have the means to do it, much like their GI ancestors. So, watch out.  When you strike Generation Y, you strike a rock.

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